A GIANT’S COOK
Written & illustrated by Frenchfeeder
II. A shadow from the forests over the Great Lake
“For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated,
and their manners to be corrupted from their
infancy, and then punish them for those crimes
to which their first education disposed them,
what else is to be concluded from this but that
you first make thieves and then punish them?'
Thomas More, Utopia
The hunting party had been going on all night long. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be much game in the woods, at the moment. For more than a full hour, hunters had been forcing a couple of stags, only to lose them in the end, in dark paths they didn’t know so well. The moon was slowly going down. The sun would rise soon. By then, the whole disappointed group could be seen approaching the Great Lake for a halt.
“I guess that’s it. Night’s over and we didn’t catch a thing !”
“So unusual... These woods are famous for easy preys to shoot.”
“What will we say to the baron ? He will be most displeased...”
The man in command was humming the fresh air by the lake, thinking. This was a most strange, early morning. Not even birds would be heard around them, only from a great distance.
“There must be something here...”
“But we haven’t found a thing !”
“There must be something here that made everything else go away !” the man faced his followers. “Listen carefully...”
The men did as they were told. There was nothing to be heard, only the sounds of the wind through leaves and branches, and the soft murmur of the waves by the lake. But these men were experienced. After a moment, sorting through the constant white noise, some regular brushing could be discerned – as if something was on its way at that very moment.
“It sounds like someone’s... walking ? But it’s very faint.”
“We have to be cautious. Everyone, hide !”
So silent as they could walk on the wet rocks and sand, the group proceeded to hide next to the nearest cliffs, and waited. In the west, from among the dark and shapeless chaos of trees and mountains, a mysterious presence could be heard and felt – approaching.
“What is this ? The forest is moving...”
“Don’t be ridiculous !” the captain hushed to his men. “Something is going in the lake. Look at the waves coming to us... Now, listen closely...”
More noises were heard – apparently close to swimming or fishing, but stranger than all this. There had been no orders from the Baron, and the fishermen would have been coming the same way as the hunters. The captain came closer to the edge of the cliff, alone, to see what was going down there.
Then he saw the giant – and immediately went back to hide. There was a large creature crouching over the waters, catching lots of fish in his hands and eating them whole as well as drinking the waters. It looked like a child, but easilly 70 to 80 feet tall, and totally naked. His hair was messy and his whole appearance was both terrorising and miserable, his body long and thin – although it looked quite strong for someone so lean...
“Oh Lord ! Captain ! What is this ?”
“A creature from hell ?”
“Why the hell would come from hell ? What do you think this is ? It’s a giant...”
The captain tried to keep calm, while his men were growing more and more agitated and he was feeling cold sweat on his forehead. He repeated it over and over in his head, as if to cast a protective spell on his group and himself...
“’It’s a giant. It’s a giant... It will be OUR giant if we are bold. Now, we have the opportunity to bring the most amazing game back to our master !”
“Captain, are you sure ?”
“We are only equipped to hunt wild animals...”
“Isn’t that thing in the lake a wild animal ? Come, follow my lead !”
“I meant we are only equipped to hunt regular-sized animals...”
Taking no further notice of such cowardly comments, the captain ordered his men to attack. He ran to the lake, then into the water and found himself unable to go much further, with his heavy coats... In the meantime, archers had been placing themselves to shoot arrows at the giant. The others were still hesitant.
Most of them weren’t sure how he giant would react. Their move was so sudden that everyone was a bit startled. In the semi-dark sky before dawn, they saw the huge creature stand up, which was enough to make them freeze in horror. Their arrows didn’t seem to bother him much, when they got to reach him. Even their tallest pikes would merely cause superficial scratches. The captain was yelling at his men, so they let out a battle cry that evidently annoyed the giant more. He got closer to them in less than four fast steps, and caught five of them in one hand – in such a sweeping move that all the bones in their bodies were crushed, and their skulls smashed one against the others... The rest of the group tried to escape but only the fastest of them did get to hide back under the trees. More casualties were soon to be counted by the lake...
Only a minute after they had jumped from behind the cliff, the hunting party was down to three or four men hiding in the bushes like rabbits, panting and sweating in fear. They waited in silence until it was clear that the giant was gone. A few sunbeams were clearing green shades of leaves and grass. The surface of the lake also looked more like a mirror, with clouds slowly passing by. All men came out eventually. Everything was still and peaceful around them – until they found the remains of their captain and comrades where they had been thrown.
“Now we have something to bring back to the baron...”
The news of such brutal killing made the baron of Kastel-Pancia simply furious ! It was unheard of that his men would be under attack and get killed so easily, in a single fight. No matter what the survivors would say, this was an outrage. The knights and soldiers were immediately called for in the great hall. For most of them, it was the first time they were admitted to this most elegant room in the castle, and a great honor. The baron spoke to them with great command, looking like a true lord in a time of war, facing an assembly of heroes. All the men were proud, showing off their wide chests and well-fed bellies in shiny armours.
“Our land won’t stay under the menace of a giant for another day ! I want you to concentrate your forces to the West, up to Mount Moob if necessary, and get us rid of that huge, blonde beast that’s killed twenty-four of my hunters !”
The knights exchanged uneasy looks, feeling a bit confused about this decision. Orders like these were completely new to them. For years and years, the knights’ job had only been to bully the citizens, treat the peasant population like cattle and sneer at the people from Stockytown, making them feel like they were just not good enough to live under their rule. This sounded much tougher...
“Does your Royal Highness demand that our armies march to the unknown forest and look for this killing, blonde beast ?”
“Precisely. Your deeds of honour shall be the new heroic tale of Mittel Earth !”
“Except... your Royal Highness... This sudden decision might be considered by all our enemies as a demonstration of forces, almost an invasion.”
“Shouldn’t we inform the council, before we... go kill the giant ?”
The whole assembly of knights and soldiers agreed on those terms. Of course, they weren’t afraid of repercussions so much as they were scared at the thought of that beast : They had seen the bleeding, crushed bodies in the outside court...
“Nonsense !” The baron’s usually pale face was flushed with anger. “I am the one and only master of this land ! I do not answer to the council for my actions. They answer to me !”
Therefore, less than a week after this decision was unanimously adopted, the younger knights and more than two thousand soldiers left their positions around the castle of Kastel-Pancia, going West. They went from town to town, always welcomed by the frightened farmers who were only too grateful to give all their provisions away in exchange for their miserable lives. Then the troops were seen marching with great enthusiasm – and no hurry – into the unknown forest...
Less than a month after they were all gone, and there was no sign or news from the whole army, peasants from the most remote villages in the West saw horses going around with saddles but no riders. These strange events went on for days, and there would be weapons sometimes, broken or unused, scattered by horses and bulls coming out of the woods. The farmers would take them home in silence, for their own use – and forget to report them as lost and found. No man had be seen coming back so far. Then some more courageous town folks decided to look for soldiers who might still be hiding – but they had a hunch that they only needed to spot and follow the flocks of crows going from trees to trees...
What they found was a mess of a battlefield, with the heaviest machines of war smashed like toys, and rotting bodies already eaten away by scavengers... It was pretty clear that there would be no survivor to tell what had happened. Another tall tale would start spreading in Kastel-Pancia – the terryfying, epic, tragically lost battle against the giant. Once again, their existence belonged to legend...
“What did you say ? Total destruction ?”
“I’m afraid so, your Royal Highness... Only a few horses were recovered. All our men are considered dead or lost without a trace. All our war equipment engaged in the battle is ruined. So, I guess we should consider total destruction...”
“But did they kill the giant ?”
“We have no evidence that they did, unfortunately – your Royal Highness...”
The baron looked quite calm and composed, but it was still a tremendous shock to him. There was a giant creature in the unknown forests, who could now enter his lands and private domains at any moment, with no one to fight against him. No soldier would ever dare to face such a creature... What soldiers ? The baron had lost all his army : only his retinue was left protecting the castle.
“We have to inform the council of the Four. They have to do something ! I mean, we have to do something...”
Before the other members of council were called, rumours regarding the giant had spread like wildfire, all over Mittel Earth. First, spies from Stockytown had found the armies’ manoeuvers up North suspicious. Pretty soon, the reports would be more and more precise. It was confirmed now that there was a wild, huge, blonde beast in the forests up North, who had destroyed the armed forces of Kastel-Pancia.
The official version was that the baron’s armies had been attacked, of course, but no one would be fooled, especially in Stockytown where the idea of complete loss of their Northern enemy’s infantry, artillery and light brigades brought back ancient grudge, caused instant relief and gave way to some fresh ambitions ! The merchant’s guild was already holding a secret meeting, in order to decide what would be their position in the council. What was to be expected from this “hard-favor’d tyrant, ugly, meager, lean” character they always mocked ?
“The baron will ask for our help. As his neighbour, we should engage our forces to secure the area, get to his castle to defend him, investigate in the meantime, and get our troops prepared to take over his lands... We could do so without raising much suspicion.”
“The baron is weakened by this blow, but he’s not stupid. He will ask for some other kind of help from us... We should still provide it to him, so we can later ask for retribution in some way. And by then, we will be fully ready to attack.”
“So, it is official. Our answer to the baron will be positive. Full cooperation.”
The three members of the council were still pretty nervous, as they waited for the baron’s carriage to reach Burgstijn-at-the-Seams. The Lord-Mayor and Holy Father of Sacka-Graez, both barely able to stand on their feet after a few drinks and a good, full meal in their private dining hall, were thinking deeply about the case, and discussing through it with a few pints – or rather gallons – of beer.
The city and lands of Burgstijn-at-the-Seams were in no real danger, since the giant was located so far away from them, up North. It would be ridiculous to get in trouble and fight against what would never come harm them. But the news from Kastel-Pancia was so sudden, and the intentions of Stockytown so obvious, that there could be a movement of panic in the opinion of the nobility whom they represented. Also, there could be great advantage for the Lord-Mayor to hold the baron in his grip, financially or by any other mean – just a little bit tighter...
As for the Holy Father, his opinion was already clear. The unknown forest was a border to his own lands as well as the baron’s. If the giant was forced to move away from his Northern mountains, he would find a way South and West, maybe even to his peaceful monastery. Monks weren'’t prepared for combat. They had to help the baron, even in a losing battle, to keep the giant away from them.
They did not know what the baron’s intentions were, however. During his long journey from his castle to Burgstijn-at-the-Seams, the distressed lord of Kastel-Pancia had recovered his full spirits and devised a plan. He knew his enemies a lot better than they even cared to admit, and he didn’'t expect more than official help with little effect – if any. However, using his own diplomatic sense, and in exchange of counterparts he wasn’t quite willing to offer, the baron knew that he could get anything he wanted from the council. So this negociation was the easy part for him. He was already working on the next step to make them fall...
As expected, his arrival was an occasion of much celebration. Canons were fired all over the city and a cheering crowd welcomed him with flowers, in a strange atmosphere of joy, reverence and hypocricy that made the baron smile his usual arrogant grin, and bow to the compliments he recieved bitterly. He would never be called “Royal Highness” unless his luck was bad, or there was some favour to ask. All those formalities were a good sign, in any case...
“Gentlemen !” the baron started, presiding the council. “We are all well-aware of the danger and its nature. A giant of impressive strength, taller than the palace where we are holding this noble session, and able to crush it with his bare fists, is now menacing my lands. And not just my lands, but yours ! For the wellfare of our people and ourselves, we must take action.”
“But what do you propose to do ?”
“Raising another army would be pointless. Not under such circumstances... We must send someone there to deal with the beast. Someone on a special mission.”
“How could a man alone defeat this huge beast ?”
“When a whole army couldn’t...” the merchant’s guild secretary corrected himself at once “err... couldn’t resist against him !”
“We will not send a soldier, but a man coming in peace.”
“How do we know that will work ?”
“And who can we send ?”
There was much debate about the baron’s plan, but the representatives were listening closely. The main idea was to approach the giant like an animal : quietly and without angering it – then try to deal with the creature, get to domesticate it somehow. The baron showed confidence, but all this didn’t sound too convincing to the other members in the council.
“How do we get to domesticate a huge, wild animal like this, to start with ?”
“How do you deal with a wild horse ? Give him a sugar, he will follow you into the stables. We will follow the same process.”
“We... give the giant sugar ?...”
“Not plain sugar. We will send a man to him, and we will send food. All the best meals we can cook. Lots of food. Enormous amounts of the most fattening foods, in fact ! That’s why we need to unite and participate.”
Once presented so clearly, the baron’s plan was shaping up nicely... The three other members in the council started showing more and more interest as soon as food was mentionned in the process... Their eyes glistened with little stars while their mouths were already watering. The baron’s eyes also glistened, maliciously.
“Land transportation is far too dangerous... We will arm and send ships carrying large plates of food from all ports in our lands. The man we send there will be in charge of cooking and heating the meals, so the giant gets to eat as much as we can feed him every day.”
“This sounds... interesting” the first secretary of Stockytown wiped his mouth with an embroideled handkerchief. “For sure... But where does that lead us ?”
“Our main concern, at this point, is how fast this creature can run. He is way too strong, and he is way too fast for us to defeat him. We need to make him weak, and slow... With so much good food being fed to him, this giant will get fat. Then we’ll increase the loads on our ships steadily, at least every month... The giant will grow fatter. He will spend more time eating, and he will get lazy over time. If we can make him eat all day long, sleep all night long, and keep it up only for a few months after that point, he will oppose us little resistance – when we come back to kill him !”
The whole council praised the baron’s carefully tought plan, and it was adopted immediately. The baron was beaming, shaking hands with the other members – an attitude the others had never seen in such a dreary man, who had also come to them diminished and was now giving orders rather than begging... The council signed a formal agreement regarding the quantities of food to be shipped, the organization and responsibilities. Everyone was now under oath to take the giant down. With al their forces united so effectively, that huge blonde beast wouldn’t stand a chance ! Only the question of a man willing to go there was still opened. This cooled the council down for a moment...
“How about a man in prison ? That would make him do time and get free.”
“I don’t think men under such penalty would be willing to be sent into the wild and risk getting killed by a giant...”
“How about a man sentenced to Death ?”
That proposition raised new interest, and eventually got the concil’s approval. There was a young man in Burgstijn-at-the-Seams, a wanderer, who had been recently caught and sent to prison as a thief. His sentence was still pending.
“We will see him at once !”
The council sent a judge from Burgstijn down to the cell where the prisoner was scrubbing the floor as punishment from the guards. He looked quite fit for the job : not quite tall, skinny with only little muscle on him, dark hair and deviant eyes. He definitely looked like a thief, but maybe a giant wouldn’t mind that. The judge sent by the Lord-Mayor told him about the council’s decision.
“For petty theft and robbery, you have been sentenced to be hanged by the neck until Death. Tomorrow morning, the place of execution will be prepared.”
The young thief couldn’t believe what he had heard. There was no recollection of a death penalty in Burgstijn-at-the-Seams... Even the guard was shocked ! And the judge was known for his progressive views on the penalties and procedures. In his younger days, he had changed the paragraph in the torture code to ban a century-old sentence of death by starvation, deemed too cruel for such a civilized state – although hanging didn’t sound much better, right now...
“Why did you tell that to the prisoner ?...” the baron asked angrily to the council.
“Let him stew in his own sweat for the night. He will be all the more willing to go on a dangerous mission tomorrow.”
“Oh, right. How clever of you... So it is settled, we will send him !”
“As a messenger of peace...”
“Naturally ! Now, on to the food. We have to send the best food we have here...”
This second mention of food made all the members in the council hungry. They had not been feasting for over three hours, with those long deliberations. As the Lord-Mayor invited his guests into the dining hall, he went down to the kitchen and gave firm orders to his staff of cooks – a group of extremely well-fed young men, considering they didn’t belong to any noble family. But it was only natural that daily, easy access to the best food in town would cause their swollen bellies to grow out and out to the point of breaking their leather belts open – especially in the case of the most competent cooks !
“You are going to bake Burgstijn pie for us. Not just regular Burgstijn pie for our traditional celebrations, but the biggest pies you have ever made. Each of those pies should be enough for a hundred people, so you will use the biggests pot you have... When it’s ready, you can call back for me.”
“As you wish, my Lord.”
“And you won’t eat a whole pie for every five you bake, this time ! I will see to it myself, if necessary” the Lord-Mayor added to one of the thinner cooks standing there, with a stern look on his noble face.
Then he told the butchers to produce dozens of the largest sausages they had dreamed of making. They would have to be five times thicker than a man’s arm, cooked up and ready to be shipped like the pies. Other professional brewers and bakers were called to start cooking huge meals to be sent to the giant...
“Everything will be ready by tomorrow afternoon. Rest assured, the giant will be most pleased !” the Lord-Mayor announced to his guests, at the dining table. The council was already drinking to the success of their first common expedition.
“Fools...” the baron mumbled in his beard, his eyes twitching with malice again. “They’re all such fools !” and he raised his glass with the others...
Early in the morning, drums started sounding in the main court and the poor young thief was brought to the execution place. He had been crying all night. His eyes were red and wet. His arms and legs were shaking nervously, making him look even thinner than he actually was. He was hardly listening to the humiliating announcements to the people and the death sentence being read to him. Then trumpets played a boisterous fanfare, and the Lord-Mayor made his entrance to pronounce the thief’s grace if he would embark on a mission at once.
Mark, suddenly awake from his nightmare, was only too eager to accept. Before he knew it, he was standing on a magnificent ship overloaded with enormous dishes and packages that took all the room on deck – going North on the Great Lake, with five other large ships, to meet that giant who was everyone’s terror...
(to be continued...)